Growing up in Northern Ireland, Jonny always loved the outdoor life. He recalls: “There was always an adventurous streak to me. Going through school I was a bit bored, knowing that I would rather be outside. I just enjoyed being outside, playing, rather than working too hard.” At the age of nine he joined a kayak club – just for fun – but the water skills he learned were to become significant in later life in a way he could never have imagined.
The tragic accident
Jonny met his wife Fiona at a ski resort in France. In 2012, they booked a two-week skiing holiday back in France with some friends. On what proved to be the fateful day, Fiona had a problem with her snowboard and needed to go to a shop in town for a repair while the others headed up the mountain.
From the lift they could see a snow-park, which attracted Jonny’s attention. The others weren’t interested so Jonny went alone. Ironically the last thing his friend Tristan said to him was: “I don’t want to get injured this early in the holiday. See you at the restaurant.” So the plan was for Jonny to have a quick run through the park and meet the others for dinner.
He takes up the story.
- “When I came into the park it was quite busy and I did not want to hang around so I saw there was a jump that no one was hitting and went for that one. It was a bit bigger than I would really have wanted to start on but it wasn’t the biggest in the park. It was a red so not massive.
- “As I approached it I noticed that the snow was a bit slushy and I was going a bit too slow and didn’t really want to hit it. There were voices in my head saying, ‘you don’t have to do it’ and another one saying – ‘go on, you will be fine’. And I listened to the voice that I usually listen to and hit the jump. I had picked up too much speed at this point, to try and close the gap and I remember popping up into the air.
- “As I was hanging in the air I started to look down and spot my landing and thought ‘you’re really high up here’. I said, ‘God, you are going to have to look after me’. As I tried to land, I landed on my feet but I crumpled under the weight of myself. I had cleared the landing and landed on the flat after the jump. I came sliding to a halt and had to stick my head in the snow and come to a stop.
- “When I came to a stop, my legs were sort of hunched up, in a foetal position. I knew I couldn’t move my legs but I was in too much pain to be able to move anything, so I just lay there really still.”
The operation to save the last chance for walking
Before long a snow patrol arrived but immediately recognised the seriousness of the injury and radioed for a doctor and air ambulance. He was taken to Annecy hospital. After he had an MRI scan, the surgeon said: “You have had a bad break of your lower lumber and to give you the best chance of walking again we need to operate now. So the team is going to come in and prep you for surgery.”
He was on the acute ward in Annecy for six days and was later transferred to Stoke Mandeville. Once a patient was able to sit in a wheelchair for six hours, they could transfer to the rehab unit. Jonny’s competitive nature came to the fore in this situation. One hour the first day, then two and by the end of the week he had done his six hours and could transfer to rehab. After just over four months in rehab he was discharged from Stoke Mandeville Hospital on 10 May 2013.
Where is your god when you need him most ?
Jonny had grown up in a Christian family and at a young age observed how his parents’ faith impacted their life and “wanted what they had”. He says of his own faith: “Through having that relationship with God, how I go about my day-to-day life is different. And it brings me a lot of happiness.”
That leads to us the inevitable question: where was God when the accident occurred? Is Jonny mad at God? “There have certainly been times when I was frustrated and angry – usually more with myself than anything else. There was a time in hospital when I was frustrated about it all and arguing with God. There was one night in particular I had just got into bed and I remembered I had not brushed my teeth. And I forced myself to get up and brush my teeth. And then I was angry and asked: Why did you allow this to happen?
“And I had this memory of a tree in my back garden and when I was a kid I was allowed to climb to a certain point – my dad had tied a rope swing onto it and I wasn’t allowed to climb beyond that point; but I used to do it all the time anyway. And I have that memory: you weren’t allowed to climb beyond that point but you did. And I felt God was saying: ‘I didn’t allow the accident to happen but it happened. So how are you going to deal with it?’ So my attitude became ‘I will get up and brush my teeth and push on again’.”
How did Jonny recover ?
Shortly after his discharge from hospital he applied to go on a British Paralympic Association “Road to Rio” weekend aimed at spotting athletes with potential. Jonny was offered a chance to train with the British Canoeing squad and ultimately funding as an elite athlete. Elite paracanoe events are sprints. Jonny’s previous experience of canoeing had been more white-water and slalom. “It is similar to what I’d done before and the boat skills I had made a big difference and helped me be successful so early. But I’ve had to learn the whole sprint side, the power and putting the muscle on. It is similar but very different.”
In 2013, he managed to come second in the national championships. In 2014, he won the GB Championships and followed that with silver medals at the European and World Championships. The Worlds took place in Moscow at the lake used for the 1980 Olympics. It was a great experience for Jonny.
“The scale of the competition and the venue was quite exciting. I had won the selection race to get there so I knew I could compete at the world level. I went there with no real nerves about what I was going to do. It was simply to deliver what we do every day in training. So I felt quite confident being there and was able to enjoy it.”
Paracanoe events will be included in the Paralympics for the first time in Rio next year where they will be six events – three for men and three for women. While this represents great news for the sport, the Rio programme is not without controversy. There are two types of boat in paracanoeing: K1: Kayak where a double-ended paddle is used and V1: Va’a (outrigger canoe) where a single bladed paddle is used. Where Jonny won his European and World Championship medals in the V1 class, all events in Rio will be K1.
All you have to do is try once more
Although disappointed, Jonny is still determined. “In terms of paddling, it is just a different rhythm that you get into and a different technique. With the V1 I was able to put a lot more power into it but with the kayak I am having to refine my skills.” Jonny likes to apply a verse from the Bible to his life. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). He explains: “On the start line you could easily get intimidated but I remind myself that I don’t have the spirit of fear. I have got power and I have that power because I’ve been working in the gym and I know how strong I am and how explosive that strength can be. And also I have the power of God in me which gives me strength and gives me the reason to do what I’m doing. And I can glorify God through that. And I have got power and I really do love what I’m doing. I’m able to be out in a boat racing, which is an awesome place to be, and I’m paid to do it and I’ve got an amazing family who support me doing it. So there’s no reason to feel anything other than love for what I’m doing. And sound mind – I can logically explain why I’m sitting on the start line because I have worked hard and won races and got to where I need to be. So that verse drives me through a race.”
Jonny refuses to let the accident define him. “Who I am as a person is defined by my relationship with God and I didn’t feel that needed to be diminished. I certainly feel that the accident has changed my relationship but it didn’t need to change who I was as a person. I believe that God has plans for me that are good. It is hard to say that this spinal injury was good but good things can happen through it and I still believe that God has good intentions for me and wants me to achieve good things and to do that in his name because I have a relationship with him.”